This ‘culture war’ moment could shape Virginia gov race

Politics

RICHMOND, Va. (NewsNation Now) — Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia’s election Tuesday, has been hitting his opponent with his own words since late September.

At the time, Democratic candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe was making a point that parents should apply less heat to school boards about divisive issues such as race education and mask policies, but the quote proved to be politically charged.

On stage, McAuliffe said he doesn’t believe “parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

It was part of what led to the race going from likely-McAuliffe’s to a toss-up on the eve of the final count.

“Glenn Younkin probably didn’t think he’d be a cultural warrior as the Republican nominee, but that’s what he’s become,” Matt Schlapp, chairman of the Conservative Political Action Coalition, said on NewsNation’s “On Balance with Leland Vittert.”

Since that debate, Youngkin has run ads painting McAuliffe as against parents’ rights, and even held a “Parents Matter” rally.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed federal authorities to strategize with law enforcement to address the increasing threats targeting school board members, teachers and others, citing “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” toward them.

Even that directive drew the ire of Republican lawmakers, who accused Garland of viewing parents as domestic terrorists. Garland insists that is not the goal of the initiative.

These issues, framed by Schlapp and others as part of a “culture war,” combined with President Joe Biden’s sagging poll numbers are threatening to hand Democrats their first loss in a Virginia statewide race since 2009.

McAuliffe supporters dismiss the blitz as Youngkin firing up the conservative base without appealing to the suburban swing voters who abandoned the GOP in droves during last year’s presidential election.

“Youngkin is working to divide Virginians instead of keeping our children safe from COVID-19,” said McAuliffe spokesperson Christina Freundlich.

Still, an effort to draw Loudoun County residents angry over school issues could squeeze McAuliffe in a typically low-turnout, off-year election. Last year, Democrat Joe Biden carried Loudoun County, population 420,000, with 61% of the vote. He won the state by 10 percentage points.

Republicans say Youngkin could win if he can draw support from 40% of the Greater Washington area vote. But complaining about teaching racial awareness could also backfire in a county that has grown more diverse over the years. Just 53% of Loudoun’s population is white, down from 69% as recently as 2010.

“Running a race in Loudoun County on this issue when it could create a backlash against nonwhite voters runs the risk of being counterproductive,” said Mo Elliethee, a former campaign adviser to McAuliffe and other leading Virginia Democrats.

Still, Schlapp believes this could be a harbinger of the 2022 midterms. In his “On Balance” appearance, he said Youngkin was expected to lose on paper, but if he pulled off a win, it could lead Democrats to abandon Biden.

“You’ll see more Democrats realizing that they’re gonna have to go it alone to win their race, and that standing by the president and standing by these more radicalized policies aren’t good in a purple area,” Schlapp said.

Turnout will be vital for each candidate in an off-year election. More than 1.1 million out of the state’s approximately 5.9 million registered voters cast early ballots. That’s down sharply from the 2.8 million early votes in last year’s presidential election but marks a dramatic increase when compared with about 195,000 early votes during the last gubernatorial cycle, before voting reforms were instituted.

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The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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